Monday, 31 December 2012

The Song of Achilles - Book Review

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear. (Synopsis from Amazon)


The Song of Achilles is a retelling of The Iliad for a modern audience, written in a literary style rather than a historical epic. In a lot of ways it’s similar to Mary Renault’s books, but I’m going to avoid comparing this to Mary Renault at every turn as, let’s face it, no author is really going to come out of that well.

Madeline Miller writes with a beautiful, almost lyrical style that at the same time is very easy to read, like a gentle breeze. This immediately gives the book a wistful, almost dream-like quality which I thought was surprisingly effective. It may be based on The Iliad, a very brutal and earthy book, but this novel does something completely different with the subject matter. I found that the dreaminess emphasised the idea that this is a semi-mythical story, slightly vague and ambiguous from so many retellings and so many years of history. However, despite this the characters felt very solid and alive, and their fears and longings were real. Often a dreamy book can create passive, dull characters, but this never happens here. Madeline Miller handles this difficult style perfectly, creating something both lovely and moving.

This is a character-focussed story, and so the characters themselves are very important. Madeline Miller has chosen the slightly unusual point of view of Patroclus to tell her story. This is unusual because Patroclus is not the hero, and retellings of Greek myth or Greek epic tend to focus on the hero. However, although Patroclus is not the shining champion that Achilles is, Patroclus is the driving force behind the main story in The Iliad, and in a roundabout, tragic way, it is only through Patroclus’ actions that the Greeks are able to win the war. To say more would be to reveal spoilers for those who are not aware of the story of The Iliad, but it’s enough to say that Patrcolus is actually the perfect choice for the main character of this novel.

Both Patroclus and Achilles are written extremely well, and I found their relationship believable and moving. Patroclus may have spent a little too long fretting over just why the amazing Achilles would like him above all others, which sometimes made for annoying reading, but this is probably a realistic reaction given the many ways in which Patroclus has been made to feel worthless by others. I was surprised that Madeline Miller has managed to make Achilles such a sympathetic character (he is by far my least favourite Greek hero), while still maintaining that sense of stubborn pride, selfishness and frightening anger that plagues Achilles in the original epic. With occasional exceptions, the characters in this story are far more complex than the stereotypical beefy heroes that they might have been.

Unfortunately, one of those exceptions also happened to be one of the most important characters, and the only powerful female character. Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis, reminded me more of a stereotypical domineering matriarch in an American soap opera – the one who dotes on her darling, spoilt son and disapproves of his lovers, especially if they turn out to be men. Thetis’ distaste concerning her son’s homosexual relationship struck me as completely peculiar for the time the book was set in. It made sense that she might disapprove of Patroclus based on him not being good enough for her demi-god son, but the fact that she also disapproved of a gay relationship in a time when sexuality was a much more fluid concept than it is today was a bit disappointing. It was as if a modern reader couldn’t be expected to understand a gay relationship without the usual disapproval of society and parental disappointment that often accompanies it in modern stories. I don’t necessarily need stories like this to be completely historically accurate, but in this case I thought it was a shame, and a slightly unimaginative way to create conflict.

However, having said that, there was one aspect in which Madeline Miller stayed faithful to the original epic, and to the society it’s set in, which other authors faced with similar subject matter almost never choose to do. That is that the gods and magic are real, and that these elements of the world are accepted without question. The author handles these very well, keeping a sense of mystery and the numinous about them, but managing to maintain a world that feels natural and real, not like a fantasy. I can understand why other authors choose to leave the gods and monsters out of retellings of Greek myth, but I really do love Madeline Miller’s approach, and I hope that more stories may choose to do this in future.

This story has some slip ups and misjudged moments, but it certainly succeeds in bringing this myth to life in interesting and unexpected ways. It would be a great introduction to the Greek epics for the modern reader, especially one who might find the original story, with its pages of ships and warriors’ lineage, a little daunting. The Song of Achilles is a fantastic love story, beautifully told, and in many ways actually improving on the original by tempering the constant blood and battling with a feeling of real character motivations, while also maintaining that very Greek feeling of tragic fate.

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